Each month we receive dozens of questions from readers earnestly seeking advice on how to handle some of the toughest problems in their lives. Last week I was reading over the questions and noticed that many shared a theme: defensiveness. Almost everyone was dealing with someone who, in their eyes, was VERY defensive, and they didn’t know how to talk to them, influence them, or help them. So I’d like to share what we know about defensive behavior and how you can respond to it.
Why People Get Defensive
People rarely become defensive because of what you say; they become defensive because of why they think you are saying it.
The topic being discussed is usually not the issue, it’s a person’s perception of your intent that drives their response. Their perception hinges on two axes: do they believe you care about what they care about, and do they believe you care about (or respect) them. These are what I like to call the “ingredients” to psychological safety. Unfortunately, if a person has been surrounded for years by others who don’t respect them or their viewpoints, they may seem to “be on the defensive” all the time.
At the outset of a Crucial Conversation the other person is assessing whether you mean them harm and whether are you capable of carrying out that harm. If you don’t make it clear that you respect them and have good motives, they will likely assume the worst—they will perceive you as a threat.
When people feel psychologically unsafe and threatened, they resort to silence or verbal violence. Their fight-or-flight response kicks in and the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for rational and deliberate thinking, takes a back seat to the amygdala, the instinctive part of the brain concerned with survival.
We’ve all experienced this: we feel attacked, and then we act like a complete moron in an important moment, though we feel like we’re acting brilliantly. When we look back on the moment after having calmed down, we often wonder, “What in the world was I thinking?” The truth is this: you weren’t thinking very hard, you were just trying to protect yourself.
When people feel unsafe, they focus on the threat and their motives become short-term. They are likely to get defensive, and this can make them appear short-sighted and selfish, which can evoke more defensiveness (or attacking) and an escalated response.
There are some mental disorders that can contribute to defensiveness too, but I’m not an expert in that area.
How to Respond When People Get Defensive
- Don’t blame the problem on the topic. The topic is not the problem, the problem is that the other person doesn’t trust your intent to talk about the topic. Focus on making your good intent clear. And if your intent isn’t good—to dialogue with respect for the other person and their goals/viewpoints—then you have a whole other problem that has nothing to do with the other person. (See “Start with Heart” in the book or training.)
- Clarify your good intent with a statement that shows you care for the other person and their goals and perspectives. Statements like “I know we both want to have a great holiday as a family” or “I know we don’t agree, but I want you to know that I respect you as a person, no matter what you believe” can help create a sense of safety to talk.
- Make it clear through your actions that your heart is in the right place. I like what the late Stephen Covey used to say: You can’t talk yourself out of something you’ve acted yourself into. No amount of “we share the same goals” or “I care about you” will foster safety if your actions say the opposite. So, it’s important that your actions say “I care about your goals and perspectives” or “I care about you.”
Yes, there are times when you can defuse defensiveness and restore safety in a single interaction, but for longstanding relationships it’s often something built (or destroyed) with little actions over time.